This Compact Camcorder Is an Under-Recognized Hero

Last year, the Panasonic AG-AC90 was introduced to little fanfare or notice. This lack of attention may have been due to the modest camera's small sensor, which, in an era of 4K workflows and Ultra HD displays, is hardly a motivation for shooting off fireworks and wild celebrations. The dearth of chatter might also be attributable to the camera’s notable lack of pretense; the camera is intended primarily for the most unglamorous applications in education, corporate, and the legal worlds. Then there is the poor Panasonic marketing effort (or complete absence thereof). Whatever the ultimate reason for the camera's lack of celebratory spark, the AC90 is a beautifully designed compact camcorder offering superb performance and operational efficiency at a remarkably low price.
The first thing one notices is the camera is very well-balanced. This is no small matter, as a poorly weighted camera can contribute to operator fatigue at the end of a long shooting day — and many missed shots. Placing the camera in the palm of the hand with one’s fingers extended forward to the controls, the camera sits perfectly allowing easy follow-focus, pans and tilts, with the help of a better-than-average high-resolution LCD viewfinder borrowed from the company’s higher-end models.
The camera is fitted with three 1/4-inch MOS sensors, and that's the mostly likely reason for the lack of enthusiasm on blog sites and in the media in general. While the configuration is ideal for most nonfiction and documentary programs, it flies in the face of the current vogue to employ a large sensor, regardless of the wisdom or practicality of such a choice with respect to focus, lens options, speed of operation and workflow. Defying the current mindset, I prefer a smallish imager for unscripted shows and fast action sports like NASCAR, where the increased depth of field is critical to capturing sharp images at the end of a long telephoto zoom. The trade-off, of course, is the reduced dynamic range and low light capability. The AC90 tends to struggle with the deepest shadows, given the camera’s diminutive sensor.
The 12X f1.5-2.8 integrated zoom with the 35mm SLR-equivalent wide angle of 29.8mm provides decent, if not great, coverage with little apparent barrel distortion and chromatic aberrations. This is a key advantage of compact camcorders fitted with non-interchangeable lenses: the camera compensates internally for the most egregious defects in the low-cost optics, resulting in much better performance and quality of images than one might otherwise reasonably expect.
With a tiny sensor, this camera was never intended for landscapes and broad vistas. Nevertheless, the results can be impressive for scenes exhibiting a relatively narrow dynamic range.
The AC90 chassis constructed of aviation-grade magnesium alloy allows superior heat dissipation and is particularly rugged for such a low-cost camcorder. The chassis was originally designed for Panasonic’s 3D Z10000 camera, and is thus notably fitted with a 3/8-inch mounting socket. This means the camera can be secured to the industry’s most professional support gear, including robust jib arms and cranes. I like that the AC90 can play nicely with whatever large support systems I might have working on a job.
The camera notably records 1080p60 AVCHD in PS mode at 28 Mbps. This is the highest AVCHD bit rate implemented to date and is a bit of an anomaly. For the unfamiliar, AVCHD is a high-performance prosumer format that is long-GOP, which means in exchange for the higher interframe compression and 4:2:0 8-bit color, the camera's output can be captured to an inexpensive SDXC/SDHC/SD card, reducing media and storage costs. As in previous codec implementations, editing AVCHD directly in the NLE should be avoided; it can be extremely processor-intensive. That means, one way or the other, you'll likely be transferring the original camera files to a more editing-friendly codec like ProRes or DNxHD.
Interestingly, the camera features nifty 5.1-channel Dolby Digital recording capability, a carryover feature, no doubt, from the 3D Z10000. That means the camera can serve as an ersatz surround-sound audio recorder for low-budget feature films and short subjects. By the way, the audio section is notably quiet for a camera at this price point, with dual-XLR balanced inputs and better-than-average low-noise preamps.
The AC90 doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, and that is a well-designed camera with precise color and a boatload of professional features (including 24p). You’ll never shoot the new Harry Potter or Lawrence of Arabia with the Panasonic AG-AC90, but for most of the projects we shoot every day in the nonfiction, sports, and documentary realms, the AC90 is an excellent alternative to the operational and performance challenges of the DSLR.